The internal turmoil of NATO

There were disagreements within NATO about increasing troop deployments in Eastern Europe and about admitting Finland and Sweden.

NATO members have recently debated whether to send more troops to the eastern flank, amid differing views on the threat posed by Russia three months into its military campaign in Ukraine.

The Baltic States and Poland continue to demand that NATO significantly expand its military presence on their territories and develop new defense capabilities such as air defense systems to deter Russia.

“The possibility of Russia launching a direct military strike against NATO allies cannot be ruled out,” says a joint proposal from the Baltic states, which include Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. “Russia can quickly concentrate its forces on NATO’s eastern flank and wage a short-term war against the alliance.”

In the proposal, the three Baltic states state that NATO must build a division-size force of about 20,000 men tasked with maneuvering quickly to support those countries when threatened.

However, some other NATO members such as France and Italy are more cautious about their commitment to costly deployments in Eastern Europe, arguing that Russia is unlikely to pose a threat to NATO territory given what was demonstrated on the Ukrainian battlefield.

“Never forget that we must build peace in the future,” French President Emmanuel Macron said last week, warning against taking actions that would make the alliance unable to work with Russia in the future.

From left: US President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson March 24 at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.  Photo: AFP.

From left: US President Joe Biden, French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson March 24 at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. Picture: AFP.

Eastern European leaders say it would be a strategic mistake to remain silent, as the West did during the 2008 conflict in Georgia and when Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. They added that the proposal has been strengthened. The increased deployment of troops would signal to President Vladimir Putin that confrontation with Russia’s neighbors should be avoided.

This will be the main theme of a weekend meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Berlin, who have agreed to continue negotiations ahead of a NATO summit in Madrid in June.

Eastern European officials see little prospect of fulfilling their pledge to increase troops on NATO’s eastern flank. They fear support in western Europe will dwindle after the Ukraine conflict ends.

“Once it’s over, many of our partners in Western Europe will quickly return to their former states,” said an official who asked not to be named. “We don’t like it because we believe we are witnessing a complete change in European security. We cannot go back to what was before.”

Although most Eastern European countries do not believe a major conflict is imminent as Russia focuses all its efforts on the operation in Ukraine, they still believe stronger forces are needed in the East to forestall potential threats.

“We must acknowledge the security concerns of our closest allies of Russia,” Czech Defense Minister Jan Havranek said.

His country has volunteered to lead a new NATO battalion in neighboring Slovakia, which is vulnerable due to its shared border with Ukraine. Havranek said NATO’s position “should be expanded and adapted to the current security situation”.

Eastern European countries, including Poland, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia, had expected NATO to send in large armies with tens of thousands of troops and support units to provide air defense systems and other protective measures.

Under the plan proposed by the Baltic States, instead of having a division-size NATO force permanently stationed in each country, their equipment would already be stationed there and NATO would send thousands more troops to Eastern European countries in an emergency. Only one NATO brigade of 6,000 troops will be deployed in each country, down from about 2,000 men before February.

“If you look at Russia’s strategy, you cannot cope without increasing NATO troops on the ground,” said a senior European diplomat.

NATO flags at the Silver Arrow military exercise in Adazi, Latvia, in 2019. Photo: Reuters.

NATO flag at the Silver Arrow military exercise in Adazi, Latvia, 2019. Photo: Reuters.

The US is stationing more than 10,000 troops in Poland, up from about 4,500 before the conflict, and wants more troops in the future.

The US official said NATO had an understanding that countries on the eastern flank should not be required to repel an attack until coalition reinforcements could arrive. But they argue that large numbers of NATO troops stationed permanently on the eastern flank are costly and ineffective. Instead, they want to set up bases and equipment in advance so NATO can expand quickly at the scale required by Eastern European countries.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, said last month he advocates establishing permanent bases with troops stationed temporarily in Eastern Europe to “make a lasting impact” without overspending.

Eastern European countries were also pushing for NATO to formally abandon the 1997 NATO-Russia Basic Law, which imposed limits on NATO troop stations in eastern member states.

However, some Western European and US officials are unwilling to abandon the deal, saying it is a useful vehicle for resuming NATO ties with Russia in the future. It also helps bolster stability, they add, because it shows NATO never intended to deploy nuclear weapons in Eastern Europe.

At the summit in Madrid at the end of June, the NATO heads of state and government have to make another important decision. Here they want to examine the membership applications of Finland and Sweden, while Turkey’s position on the admission of two new members is unclear.

Ivo Daalder, a former US ambassador to NATO and now chairman of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, believes the admission of Finland and Sweden could greatly enhance the alliance’s security in northern Europe.

But the hurdle for Sweden and Finland to join NATO could be Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on May 16 he would not agree to NATO membership for Finland and Sweden, accusing them of harboring groups considered terrorists by Ankara.

A day later, three Turkish officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, revealed that the Turkish government was considering a number of terms for negotiations in exchange for Ankara agreeing to Finland and Sweden joining NATO.

Ankara insists that any country bidding to join NATO must acknowledge its concerns about Kurdish militia groups in Turkey, Syria and Iraq.

However, this is one of the most tense issues within NATO, leading many to worry about the prospects of the two Nordic countries joining the alliance, although most members support the move.

Ronald Suny, a professor of history and political science at the University of Michigan, US, said Turkey’s sudden opposition has exposed potential problems within NATO, including disagreements between populist leaders and the rest of the bloc.

“Finland and Sweden meet the criteria for joining NATO even more clearly than some of the current members of the bloc,” Suny wrote. “Turkey’s response will be a test of NATO’s ideological unity and coherence.”

Seven Decades of NATO Advance in Europe.  Graphic: Statista.

Seven Decades of NATO Advance in Europe. Graphic: Statistics.

than tam (Corresponding Washington Post, Conversation)